Why is stepparenting after a death different than stepparenting after divorce? After all, stepfamily members in both divorce and death situations experience various kinds of losses. Am I saying that the loss of a parent is worse than the loss of a child’s former home, or the loss of living full time with Daddy?

No. Not exactly. There’s no way to quantify the severity of the losses suffered when marriages break up and families must find ways to carry on. However, my research shows that stepparents of grieving children have some singular issues to consider. Most of those revolve around how this type of loss affects the children, while other issues grow out of some role confusion because the ex-spouse is not physically present.

Here’s what I’ve discovered:

  • Many children in divorced families have regular contact with both parents. Grieving children also need “contact” with both parents. How can a stepparent encourage creative ways to keep the kids’ relationship with the deceased parent alive?
  • Related to helping kids continue their bonds with both parents, did you know you were signing up for this job when you married into the family?
  • When kids of divorce see both parents, they witness their shining traits and their faux pas. When a parent dies, the children tend to idolize the dead parent with intense feelings of loyalty, which makes it really hard and scary for them to bond with even the most loving, supportive stepparent.
  • Bereaved children can have difficulty trusting others, especially trusting any level of permanency. They may be more hesitant about intimate relationships than divorced children. A natural question for bereaved children to ask is, “Who’s going to die next?” They question the surviving parent’s mortality, and even their own mortality. I came down with pneumonia when my stepdaughter was about eight, and she immediately wanted to know if I was going to die. Her mother had passed away from cancer when she was six.
  • It’s more than a bit challenging for the stepparent to resist stepping into the role created by the loss of a parent. When a child is moving back and forth between houses, or even simply calling to speak to their mom or dad on a regular basis, that parental role is more concrete than when a parent dies.

What differences stand out to those of you who are stepparenting after a parent has died?

Mama J is a Northern Colorado writer, parent , and stepparent.  For more information on her book, Stepparenting the Grieving Child, go to www.dianefromme.com.

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8 Comments on How are Grieving Stepfamilies Different?

  1. Carly says:

    When making the point that:
    •When kids of divorce see both parents, they witness their shining traits and their faux pas. When a parent dies, the children tend to idolize the dead parent with intense feelings of loyalty, which makes it really hard and scary for them to bond with even the most loving, supportive stepparent.

    YOU HIT THAT ON THE NAIL. This Mother’s day I totally felt that sense of idolization goint on with the bio-mom from my Step Daughter not so much the Son. She died a suicidal death which is rejection on it’s most intense level. I am super Step Mom… I am fun, loving, and actually did a better job than their schizophrenic/bi-polar birth mother ever did however, she is worshiped by them. It’s really annoying and I have learned not to take it too personally. I am at a point in my relationship with them that they see me as their “Mom” and call me that behind my back to friends and teachers but call me Carly to my face. It’s such a buzz kill… lol!

  2. Carly says:

    One more thing… another way we are different is that at least divorced families are able to contact their children and vice versa. The only way for the kids to contact their dead parent is via journaling or letter writing with NO RESPONSE. They are in many cases rejected by their families for loving their step parent. This happened in our case… they lost their Mother and on top of that their entire Mom’s side of the family who are all “DISFUNKTIONAL” in the worst way. I look at it as a blessing but I am sure they are feeling that profound rejection for accepting me. It’s sad to see.

  3. Mama J says:

    The whole topic of the deceased’s family accepting or rejecting the stepparent is a rich one. I will tackle that in a future blog post! The saddest part about the rejection of the stepparent is that ultimately it affects the stepkids and their ability to feel peace with the current relationships.

  4. C4now says:

    “it affects the stepkids and their ability to feel peace with the current relationships.” YES YES YES! Hence my recent post on the nurture vs. nature! GREAT POINT!

  5. Daisy says:

    I came here for comfort, and instead find an outrageous display of selfishness. I could simply go elsewhere, but choose instead to honor my son and my own integrity by being honest.

    My beautiful 32 year old son died suddenly and violently on June 28th, 2009, while on a business trip to England. He leaves behind a grieving family: a loving wife, a 7 month old daughter, myself, a 27 year old brother,4 step-siblings (his step-siblings are grieving to various degrees of their ability) bereft friends and work colleagues, and a stricken community, who knew and loved him.

    He also has left behind at least 3 grief stuffing, numbed out people: his alcoholic father, alcoholic step-mother and my current husband … a step-father who never embraced his role w/the love inherent in that role, and is, nevertheless, a decent man – but is a decent man w/more selfish interests than not, which only compounds my broken heart. He is not here for me in my loss. Instead, he is distancing himself emotionally so as to preserve his denial of my grief – which further serves his self-interested stance in his ongoing competitive struggle to be the only person in the world I love. This is, in my experience, a typical step-parent dilemma for those step-parents who do not know how to practice mature love. Suffice it to say, I do not suffer the same dilemma. However, I do suffer from the practice of this immature ‘love’ by him.

    Is it really necessary to explain how the grief stuffers are compounding my grief? Apparently so. Especially when I see selfish step-parents posting here who still want to maintain their false status as centerplaces of the universe .. e.g. finding it ‘annoying’ to have grieving step-children who have not transferred their adoration of dead parents onto the step-parents. This kind of emotional immaturity only adds additional devastatingly selfish demands to an already devastating loss. Get a clue step-parents: YOU ARE NOT EVER GOING TO REPLACE THE PERSON WHO HAS DIED!!! Your only job is to step up to the job of offering comfort and solace to the people experiencing grief. This is not the time (and there IS NO proper time) for you to be opportunistically grabbing onto power plays to feed your damned selfish interests. And YES, there ARE evil step-parents. Take a good look at yourselves. You have choices. Why not choose to love maturely? You could make a real difference in the children’s lives you have been privileged to share. you could make a difference to your grieving husbands (and yes, they are grieving, despite how that may threaten your false sense of security). Or you could continue to be whining babies competing w/the children in your lives for the place of ‘most important child’. I hope you choose wisely and stop feeding resentful poison to your own selfish senses of ‘rejection’ but frankly, doubt it.

  6. […] encourage comments and friendly debate on this blog, but I have to admit I was surprised to receive a comment this summer from a reader nicknamed Daisy:  ”I came here for comfort, and instead find an […]

  7. Momma says:

    On June 3rd, 2009, My 8yr old daughter’s daddy passed away at the young age of 29. What was suppose to be a nice, fun visit with her dad and step mother turned into a traggic, sad event. I grieve the loss of my daughter’s daddy as just that, an irreplacable relationship that no one can replicate.
    It has been 3 months 6 days since his passing and I have been so overwhelmed with so many emotions. Our situation was very unique. My daughter’s dad and I had a good relationship. We had to work at it for the sake of our daughter, but we managed, and I’m so grateful. My daughter’s dad met a wonderful woman, who in time became a step mother to my daughter. They had approx. 12 weeks during the yr for visitation as we don’t live in the same city. It worked out fine, I had some issues here and there because it seemed like my daughter was traveling way too much for being so young. Of course there were issues of where do I belong, and some minor emotional and behavorial problems. Along with who disciplines her and what have you. Now, as I look back I realize this has effected our daughter in many ways one being a struggeling student in school. Keep in mind I don’t reget my daughter establishing a relationship with her father and being so gracious and supportive of the step mother, even more grateful that he had the opportunity to be a father to his daughter during his short time here are earth. Since his passing which still seems like yesterday to me, I’m finding it difficult to establish a new visitation or whatever you would call it with the step mother. Unfortunately my daughter’s dad and step mother were unable to have a child of their own, so my daughter is all that the step mother has left of her deceased husband. I want to help my daughter maintain her relationship with the step mother, but it is difficult because the step mother wants 6weeks or more of visitation with my daughter. I was wondering if you all had any thoughts? I don’t want to cut the step mother out of the picture, but I also feel like I can finally start my family with out the constant revolving of whether our family plans will effect visitation schedules and what not. My daughter also has a step sister, and a step father whom has been in my daughter’s life since she was 1yr old. Not that it matters but my daughter’s step dad has been in her life longer that the step mother has been in her life. I’m just really overwhelmed and I know I can’t make everyone happy, but I’m having such a difficult time finding a balance…HELP! I feel like I have not had the opportunity to really grieve the loss of my friend, my first love…

  8. Diane/Mama J says:

    Momma, I feel for your situation.

    I often do “A Reader Writes” post on my blog and may feature your situation so that others may comment fresh.

    My initial reactions to your story are:

    — Everyone need time in this situation. It is fair for you to ask for time to grieve, and to think about how you want to handle this situation.

    — As you said, tell your ex’s wife that you don’t want to cut her out. You may have already told her this; if not, you could combine it with the “I need time” message.

    — She is grieving the loss of her husband, and her grief process over time will change her outlook. Perhaps she will even re-marry down the road. These are all factors in your decision of how much to let your daughter spend with her.

    — How much time does your daughter want to spend with her? That’s an important factor as well.

    — Couldn’t the relationship between the two of them be mostly like an “aunt/niece” relationship? Maybe they can write to/e-mail each other to stay in touch, and then occasionally see each other?

    — I’m pretty sure that legally, unless she adopted your daughter, she doesn’t have visitation rights…that’s just a sidenote as I know you are trying to “do the right thing” for the relationship.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Mama J

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